The Right To Teach

While human rights are considered inalienable to the human condition, when we wish to exercise those rights within a public context the impact on others puts constraints on our rights, making it necessary to go through an additional process by which we formally earn that right within that public context.  For example, I have the right to free speech, but if I wish to exercise that right using a megaphone in a crowded public space I could cause a harmful disruption, so I must earn that right by obtaining an official permit that justifies and validates my conducting a loud speech in that location.  Or to use a more common example, I have the right to move freely within the public realm of the nation in which I hold citizenship, but if I wish to do so in a motor vehicle I must earn that right through obtaining a driving license that certifies my ability to drive.  In the same vein, given that education is foundational to a healthy and productive society, one could legitimately ask by what standard we assess how a teacher earns the right to teach.

There are two commonly used yardsticks.  The first is that the teacher is qualified by education and/or experience in the subject that she shall teach; and I shall refer to this as the yardstick of “expertise”.  The second is that the teacher is qualified in the field of education, and therefore knows what it means to teach; and I shall refer to this as the yardstick of “pedagogy”.

Both are extremely important, and hold varying emphasis at different levels of education.  At the level of primary education where young children are gaining their early introduction to the environment, challenges, and processes of learning, the sophistication of content is not a foreground issue, so expertise in a specific subject is rarely demanded and the emphasis is on pedagogy.  In some countries, the right to teach at this level is predicated on acquiring a degree in education, but in others (including India) a degree in education is required only to teach at the secondary and higher secondary level, and at the primary level it is considered sufficient if the school has confidence in the teacher’s ability to implement the pedagogical models used by the institution.

By the time one reaches higher secondary or tertiary education, the emphasis has shifted to expertise, often to the level that the question of pedagogy receives little attention, and the dominant criterion in determining the teacher’s right to teach is her qualifications in the subject she is going to teach.  Teachers who are effective at this level are those who intuitively pick up the essentials of pedagogy, but it is quite common to find teachers who are very competent in the subject, but ineffective as teachers because they lack the necessary pedagogical ability.

This analysis focuses on the tertiary (college) level of education, where both expertise and pedagogy are equally important.  In examining this, a key question is whether the institution within which teaching takes place is one that strives for excellence, or whether it is one that is content to coast within conventional routines (and for purposes of discussion, we will leave aside a far too common situation in India, where privatised education is a profit-earning business, and the only aim is to construct a public illusion that education occurs, with little attention paid to the fundamentals of education).

In an institution that does not seek to transcend convention, expertise at the cutting edge of new knowledge is not sought, and the content discussed remains within conformist pre-determined limits.  Pedagogy follows established routines, either of rote learning, or of mere repetition of predetermined content in the classroom.  But when the institution strives for excellence, expertise is not content with convention, and the demand is that the teacher’s right to teach must be earned by the demonstrated ability to be at the cutting edge.  This must be proven through work beyond the realm of teaching, either by having research and/or writing accepted by academically reputed publications, or (as in fields like design) by practice that is widely recognised by a community of peers as innovative and noteworthy.   In both types, learning is believed to occur if the student is able to effectively reproduce, in an assignment or examination, the content that was taught.  Colleges where a high percentage of faculty are demonstrably at the cutting edge of knowledge throw greater challenges to their students, and acquire a reputation of belonging to an elite tier, defining a benchmark where the quality of education is superior.

Is the quality of education truly superior in this elite tier?  This is the question examined by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger in two studies, one published in 1999 and the second in 2011 (for a summary of the 1999 study see the Brookings Institution paper Who Needs Harvard? by Greg Easterbrook).  If success is measured quantitatively by income earned after graduation, graduates from the elite tier of colleges earn substantively more than those from the second tier.  But through its reputation, an elite college attracts a different profile and number of applicants, can afford to be far more selective in its admission process, and (when compared to second-tier colleges) may be able to select more students whose profile and capabilities increase the odds of their subsequent success.  To eliminate this selection bias, Dale and Krueger compare graduates from the elite tier with students who were accepted by the elite tier but chose to attend second-tier colleges, and found there is no substantive difference in the success of these two groups. The only exception were those students whose parents were either less educated or from minority backgrounds, and members of this group were far more likely to leverage the opportunity that admission into an elite college provided to them.  The Dale/Krueger studies suggest that it is the student rather than the college that makes a greater difference; so, the level of success a college produces in its graduating body of students may depend more on how its reputation attracts applicants than on the actual education delivered.

William Deresiewicz, a professor at Yale University, is even less forgiving of elite college education in his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, arguing that “the system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it”.  In Deresiewicz’s analysis, students are able to respond to the challenge of high standards demanded by cutting-edge faculty by reproducing the language they hear, but once they step out of the context of the college that supports this language, they lose the language, are unable to produce substantive and independent critical autonomy, succumb to commercial and other pressures from which they were insulated in college, and are able to effectively interact only with people who are very similar to themselves.

It would be infeasible to claim that every student winds up like this, and there are always some students who develop their critical autonomy and excel in many aspects of life.  But if results in elite education depend more on the student than the education delivered, it is likely these students are driven by their own intrinsic curiosity and motivation, and would probably do well irrespective of the education they receive; and every college will have a small percentage of such students who inevitably flourish.  The success of a college should not be measured by the yardstick of how its best student does, but by how its average student does.  And if the average student is unable to effectively reproduce the critical autonomy that their faculty possess, then clearly a pedagogical connection is missing at a fundamental level.  If the right to teach is predicated on excellence in expertise and pedagogy, we are driven to ask why, at the tertiary level, education privileges expertise to the point of neglecting pedagogy.

Both expertise and pedagogy are important, but they are (as a logician would say) conditions that are necessary but insufficient, for expertise deals with what we teach, and pedagogy deals with how we teach, but neither adequately addresses the question of why we teach.  If I claim to qualify as a teacher through an expertise reflected in the development of new knowledge that is at the cutting edge, I have reached there through constructing my autonomy as a rigorous learner, and the true purpose of my teaching must focus on the reproduction of that autonomy rather than the reproduction of my knowledge, to the point that I will privilege and nurture that autonomy even if it critiques my own knowledge.

Critical autonomy is not a wholly self-indulgent phenomenon.  It combines passion and curiosity for a domain of knowledge through a relationship that is intensely personal, so the learner is not content with regurgitation of established knowledge and seeks a personal mastery of the domain that empowers an individualized joy of discovery and meaning in the student’s life.  To achieve this, the primary goal of teaching is to infect the student with the teacher’s passion as an autonomous learner.  And if the student is to feel the same passion, this calls for a third yardstick in measuring a person’s right to teach: compassion, a word whose etymology means “to feel with”. In the absence of compassion, the teacher’s ego takes over to foreground her power and expertise, and pedagogy can be perceived as superfluous, for communication is predominantly one-way.  But in the presence of compassion, the teacher’s humility takes over, and pedagogy becomes central as a bridge enabling two-way communication, so that the teacher can work toward nurturing the student’s autonomy.

Compassion is not purely emotional and abstract, and is measurable through student feedback loops.  A few weeks ago, the legendary tennis coach Nick Bollettieri delivered a lecture in Bangalore.  Among those who have trained at his academy are ten players who achieved the number one ranking in the world, plus a host of others who broke into the top tier.  Yet, Bollettieri has never played competitive tennis in his life, and has clearly mastered the art of teaching to a level that more than makes up for any gaps in personal achievement.  In his lecture, he said that one of the greatest rewards a teacher can get is to continue to receive letters from his former students.  He said he did not care whether they wrote about their trophies, or being a lawyer, or being a mother; if they keep writing to you, you know you have made an impact.  What he was effectively saying is that if they keep writing to you, compassion has been present, they have been infected by your passion, and the sharing of passion, once unleashed, is imbued with a connective energy that is reluctant to end.

We must add a third yardstick, and define the right to teach as predicated on seeking excellence in three dimensions: compassion, pedagogy and expertise.  And compassion must be the launching pad from which one approaches pedagogy and expertise.  This is a poorly understood fact, and until it is properly appreciated we will continue in the ironic situation of an education system where the elite tier that sets the benchmark contains colleges that are widely reputed as centres of excellence, staffed with faculty who are at the cutting edge of their respective domains, yet containing far too few teachers who have authentically earned the right to teach.

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